Friday, November 10, 2006

The Morality of Procreation

I admit that I do not study much in the way of ethics. Although, I do think that studying enough metaphysics and epistemology would provide one with good enough tools for thinking about morality. But I have this question I would like to ask those who study much more ethics, to get an idea of what people think, because I'm so torn on this issue, as I am with many ethical issues.

The morality of procreation: is it ever immoral, unethical, to procreate? Is procreation is a right of some sort? Or a privilege? Are there circumstances in which it really is wrong to have a child? There are lots of circumstances to consider:

(1) If you know that the child you will have will be born with some disease, or handicap, or whatever, that makes his/her life difficult in a significant way. Would it not be better to not have that child?

(2) If you are in a financial situation that is not conducive to raising a child addressing all of his/her needs to a high enough degree? (Is there some degree that we can decide is high enough, or too low for raising a child and providing enough for his/her needs?)

(3) What about the bias of biology? That is, there are so many children that need to be adopted, so why bother procreating if you can just adopt? Is it not ethically preferable to adopt?

These are only a couple of the questions that can be asked, there are so many more. And I am not limiting this post to only addressing these ones here, I am only trying to provide some food for thought. But I would really like to know what some others' thoughts are about the issues of morality and procreation. I recognize that my views are colored by my own experiences and feelings and decisions about my life, but I would like to know what others think, since others have very different experiences. This is one of those really hard issues for me, because on one hand, I realize that it is very personal, and that most people might want to say that no one has the right to interfere in that. But on the other hand, I feel that procreation, and raising a child is perhaps the heaviest moral act that one can engage in, since it involves not merely interacting with another person, but literally creating, in every way, another person, and being wholly responsible for that person.

So, what do people think of this? Like I said, I'm no ethicist, so I would really like to gett the perspective of someone who is, who has studied ethics.


At 9:39 PM, November 10, 2006, Blogger Jo said...

I've actually been mulling over something similar, and you do raise some interesting scenarios as to when procreation might be morally questionable. I can't say that I know the answer myself, but my gut reaction to the question is that yes, there are some cases where procreation is not moral (or somehow morally justified).

I think part of the problem may hinge upon using the word "procreation", in that it seems loaded in conferring some sort of right or benefit upon the parties, such as the parents and unborn child. (I don't know, it seems that right-to-lifers use it.) Perhaps if we were to simply use a term like "reproduction" it takes away any moral weight the term "procreation" may have.

That aside, one (other) example where it seems apparent that procreation (or reproduction, or whatever) is morally questionable is in cases where a party may intentionally fall pregnant to keep a relationship going or something like that. In this case, I'd argue that what makes the act of procreation morally questionable is the use of dishonesty (and, if you want to bring this in - although I don't think it's necessary, the purported rights of the unborn child) to further some other end.

Other similar cases would involve procreating to receive some sort of tax benefit (like you know how you can get tax breaks if you have dependents and whatnot) or something like that.

But as for the examples you highlight, one thing that seems to be relevant to the three cases is that you assume that the unborn child has some sort of rights. Now, this is where my own bias probably plays into it, and I know this is a very sticky issue, but if you can sever the rights of an unborn child from those scenarios, it seems that there is less of a problem. (Of course, I am assuming that you can actually do this, because this could flow into another argument about whether unborn entities have rights...). But let's assume that you can. If this is the case then you only have the interests of the parents to consider, and I think that if (for example) they think that they can't afford to raise a kid, then the act of reproducing becomes morally questionable because they are putting themselves at some sort of financial disadvantage. I don't know.

If I have completely missed the point, let me know. I just had a gut reaction to the question and now I'm scrambling to justify my answer.

At 7:11 PM, November 12, 2006, Blogger Sarah said...

I have much to say on this topic that might be better served by an entire book, but considering the limits of commenting on this post... bear with me...
*takes a deep breath*

The entire discussion of procreation seems to hinge on "rights" and what it is that we value. We seem to believe that it is a human (inalienable?) right to have children. I'm not sure we have a basis for this, but perhaps one of you can correct me on that. As far as what we value goes, the discussion may hinge on whether or not we "value" procreation. Of course as a species we have some sort of drive to value the propagation of the species- procreation is necessary to continuing the human race. However, I don't think these terms apply anymore. The human race is in no danger of dying out because of a lack of procreation. We have more children than we do parents. We have more children than everyone who is a parent can take care of. The justification of "propagating the species" doesn't seem to apply anymore in an over-populated world. However, I'm not willing to say that it is "immoral" for someone in an overpopulated world to reproduce. If someone has this "competent" status as far as financially, emotionally, etc. to provide for a child, then I'm unwilling to say that they should not reproduce. (However, this presents obvious problems in terms of how do we determine "competent" and who determines "competent", etc.) What I am willing to claim is the following:
1) If two people cannot procreate naturally, they require extra fertility treatments and/or other advances in science to procreate
2) These sort of treatments require a serious desire to have children as well as a large amount of money
2a) The long-term effects of fertility treatments on women are unknown (or at least under-known)
3) There are many children that do not have parents that could be well provided for by this money and parents so dedicated to being parents that they are willing to do just about anything to be parents.
3a) Children that are already alive could benefit from these resources
4) Therefore, it is immoral to go to such extensive efforts to procreate

I will first say that I list (2a) and (3a) as such because they seem to play into (2) and (3) and may or may not be extraneous, but I consider them to be valuable in formulating my point. Allow me to explain further. The entire argument hinges on valuing human life- whether that human life be a child born into a country so impoverished that the parents are forced either to abandon the child or sell the child in order to make ends meet, or an unplanned pregnancy where the mother realizes that she is unable to provide for the child, thus giving it up for adoption. (I do not at this point feel like arguing the value of human life- there are interesting implications to any value given to human life--and any definition of "life"-- that I really would prefer not to get into.) Let us take as a given that all children that have already been born are innocent and deserving of a chance. To deny a child that has already been born through whatever circumstances a chance to thrive and reach its potential seems to be, in a sense, an absolute waste. There are good parents in good situations, and there are children that need good parents in good situations. Putting the two together seems to be fairly obvious doesn't it?

My greatest concern lies more in the risks of fertility treatments in general. The long-term risks of fertility treatments in general is under-researched. Along with that, consider the biological/evolutionary implications of individuals lacking in adequate reproductive abilities passing on those genes. (Although one can argue that it is not a matter of genes that causes infertility or low fertility, but complications from our environment.) Our social insistence that women must reproduce in order to be "mothers" could be potentially endangering women as a whole. What do we mean when we say someone is a "mother"? There seem to be two definitions: one in the producing of the child, and one in taking care of the child. I do not wish to say that women should not be mothers. What I do wish to say is that it is absolutely ridiculous for women to endanger their bodies in order to be a "mother" when there are other options.

Why do we seem to be so opposed to adoption? A desire to create one's own offspring seems to be understandable when one considers smaller tribal societies and in societies with great conflict with a neighboring genetic pool where some sort of pride in genetic make-up is valued. But are we not a more globalized society now? Have we not come to an understanding that humans, regardless of race, are remarkably similar? Have we not come to understand that while "nature" has an effect on a person, "nuture" has even more of an effect, or can at least in some ways balance out some traits of "nature"? Why then, is it necessary for us to be so concerned with producing our own offspring? Many times, when I present this argument to friends, they argue that there is something about being pregnant and giving birth that is desirable. I cannot deny that there are women that feel this way. But I argue, occasionally in a compelling manner, that the pleasure/happiness of pregnancy and giving birth is limited- one should not procreate just to obtain 9 month pleasure/happiness. One should desire the pleasure/happiness of raising a child for a lifetime. The unfortunate result of this desire for a limited 9-month pleasure/happiness is that there is a child somewhere in the world that does not then have a chance to take advantage of that pleasure/happiness. If we take a utilitarian theory, and desire to maximize pleasure and happiness, it seems that the pleasure/happiness of the child should far outweigh the limited 9-month pleasure/happiness.

But does this not lead me to commit to the claim that any and all intentional procreation is therefore immoral? I want to say not necessarily- although I admit that most of the reason that I won't say that is because I feel the claim is far too strong and perhaps unfair. While I have argued against the pleasure/happiness of pregnancy and giving birth, I'm not convinced that it is compelling enough to call doing such "immoral". However, when you combine that with the danger to a woman's body and the unknown long-term effects of fertility treatments for a woman who is not naturally able to reproduce, it seems that the pleasure/happiness would be increased more if she were to adopt- especially if one considers it long-term.

At 3:30 PM, June 19, 2008, Blogger Conceiving a Child is a Sin said...

You might like to read my essay "Conceiving a Child is a Sin" at


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